Housed in a modernist theatre in the center of Amsterdam, Dutch National Opera is home to some of the Netherlands’ most prestigious opera performances, producing as many as 11 shows every year. In a bid to promote the coming 2020-21 season’s program, the institution opted for a commercial re-design, commissioning a series of animated vignettes to represent each production.
Dutch National Opera was looking to attract new audiences to the theatre with a modern approach. Taking inspiration from innovative artists on Instagram, the organization decided upon a human-led aesthetic with movement at the heart of the design, this required body motion data captured from real performers.
Dutch National Opera looked to the creative talents of BeamSystems, an audiovisual production company also based in Amsterdam. With a multitude of skills at its disposal, BeamSystems specializes in innovation, helping its clients realize their vision through the use of new technologies; be it installation, content creation, or design.
Both Niels Nujiten of Dutch National Opera, and Jason Malone from BeamSystems, spoke to us about how Xsens MVN Animate helped build this visually striking video.
A new vision for Opera
An established art form with its origins firmly rooted in performance history, opera continues to attract a devoted audience. However, with present-day opera sharing the stage with many other performance genres, Dutch National Opera sought a modern approach to re-capture the spotlight.
“The team got together and brainstormed: How do we connect the identity of the theatre to the future while keeping its traditional roots? We realized we could achieve this by tieing in art and movement. Eventually, we selected mocap to showcase movement through visuals,” said Niels.
Finding a balance between opera’s rich history and modernity was key to the design process—it’s not over until the fat lady sings? You won’t find her here.
“We started with the ideas for 12 videos and ended up with more. We wanted to accurately symbolize the operas without relying on cliche or thematics, all while emphasizing the emotion that comes with opera. There were 2 parts to this: visual artistry and original movements,” explained Niels.
“There’s a big mime performance culture in Amsterdam—mime artists can tell a story through their movements. Together with a pair of mime performers we worked together on taking a sentence, word or feeling from each opera, and connecting it to specific movements. The mimes could use small movements to represent the bigger picture for each of the operas and then the visual artist would create the videos,” said Niels.
This is where BeamSystems and Xsens enter the picture.
The brains behind the broadcast
Jason Malone has been a supplier of audiovisual installations to the arts for more than 15 years. Now part of BeamSystems, Jason works alongside a dedicated group of technicians and project managers that work to manage the entire creative process, from concept to technical production. After being approached by the Dutch National Opera company, Jason was excited to apply his technical expertise to a traditional art form.
“I have high praise for the opera team for branching out and trying something new. Many institutions in the same position can get stuck in a classical approach, so this was a really exciting opportunity. Opera has always had a more visual aspect than classical music and it's exciting to see tech being used in areas like this,” said Jason.
Jason turned to Xsens motion capture technology for the project, much to the delight of the Dutch National Opera team.
“We bought an Xsens suit because it’s the best solution for mocap nowadays—there’s no cameras and markers needed. They (Dutch National Opera) loved the fact that you can wear it under a costume and it’s invisible, it’s great for live performances,” described Jason.
“The Dutch National Opera felt that the technology was very ahead of its time as it could capture even quite minute movements in detail. The shoot on the day produced great data even in unusual scenarios such as the performers moving around whilst tied in ropes, sliding on a slippery surface” said Jason.
Versatility and ease-of-use
BeamSystems used a suite of different software and hardware solutions to achieve the project’s end goal—the system is easily integrated with other technologies and provides lighting fast turnarounds.
“We take data from the Xsens software and connect it to different software—the norm is animation rigs, but we also connect MVN Animate to Unity or Steam for VR which then enables us to create a virtual world where other people can join live with VR goggles. The BeamSystems team fit the tech together and then visualize it. The process of calibrating a pipeline was so fast and simple, a traditional setup with cameras and markers usually takes a whole day,” explained Jason.
“Using Xsens makes everything so much easier. All you need is a space and you’re up and running. Who knows, maybe motion capture could become part of the actual performances,” said Jason.
The end result
What started as a venture into the unknown has transformed into something positively received by both existing and new audiences alike. Whilst displayed in a style unfamiliar to most classical art forms, the animations have still managed to capture the true essence of operatic performance.
“It was an experiment, but it makes sense and connects art and movement to opera by putting different disciplines together for a reason, not just for the sake of it,” said Niels.
"As always with a new, experimental direction, there is a bit of insecurity. Will our audiences—both established and new—like this new look? Luckily we've had a lot of positive feedback from it. The Dutch National Opera will use the images and videos for the whole of next season, so we hope to keep on hearing more positive responses. We are also connecting to a whole new audience of viewers who, from their interest in motion design, are now discovering the world of opera. We hope to reach even more people by putting the videos up on the big screen at our theatre and through the city!" exclaimed Niels.
The introduction to Xsens MVN Animate has opened up a breadth of new creative opportunities for opera in the future, specifically the potential for its integration into a live performance. By experimenting with modern technology, Dutch National Opera has the chance to inspire a new generation of audience members.
“Now we’re actually working on an opera that uses motion capture that will be presented next year—it’s still in the early stages, but the idea of incorporating the technology is there. We need to constantly reinvent the art form and experience new ways to get an emotional message across, and technological innovation always drives this,” explained Niels.
“I’ve noticed that people in tech are very much into combining the technology with artistry and are eager to experiment in new ways. It’s very innovative and experimentally focused which builds a relationship between tech and theatre that I feel can learn a lot from each other,” said Niels.
With the combination of the Dutch National Opera, BeamSystems, and Xsens, this was a truly dutch performance. We’re excited to see next year’s developments in live motion capture opera when it takes to the stage.
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